Chautauqua heightens the Boulder experience

Email|Print| Text size + By Beth Greenberg
Globe Correspondent / November 5, 2006

BOULDER, Colo. -- A full moon rose over the jagged Flatiron Mountains on our last night at the Colorado Chautauqua. The air was warm and still, and we hiked up above Chautauqua's narrow streets and quiet cottages. Boulder glittered below us, spreading out to the plains.

Set in the foothills above the city, a mile south of downtown and on the edge of the Rocky Mountains' Front Range, Colorado Chautauqua is 26 acres of living history, a remnant of a nearly forgotten national movement.

From our vantage point on that clear night, the contrast between the serene Victorian Boulder of Chautauqua, and the bike commuting, organic farming, triathlon running, bustling Boulder of 2006 was starkly evident.

In 1874, on the breezy shores of Lake Chautauqua in northern New York, Lewis Miller, an Ohio businessman, and John Heyl Vincent, a Sunday school director, founded the New York Chautauqua Assembly. Their intent was to provide academic summer retreats for Sunday school teachers. As believers in the transformational power of education, Miller and Vincent did not limit their curriculum to Bible studies. History, science, art, geography, and languages were included. The Chautauqua experience was so popular that the summer seminar concept spread quickly beyond Sunday school.

Within a dozen years, there were more than 150 Chautauqua communities across rural America, educating anyone with a bit of time and money, access to transportation, and a desire to learn. Theodore Roosevelt called Chautauqua's democratic approach to education "the most American thing in America."

Today, Colorado Chautauqua is one of only three remaining in the country. The others are the original in New York and one in Ohio. Industrialization, automobiles, radio, and motion pictures contributed to the Chautauquas' decline. By the mid-1920s, most were already memories.

The Colorado Chautauqua opened on a former ranch in 1898. The original auditorium and dining hall (now a full-service restaurant) are still in use . While the first housing and classrooms were tents, by 1910 most of the 100 cottages, two lodges, community building, and two administration buildings were complete.

About 40 of the cottages are privately owned . The Colorado Chautauqua Association owns the remaining 60, and rents them year-round. The cottages run the gamut from one-bedroom cabins with spectacular views , to Craftsman cottages moved up from the city, to Victorians with miniature turrets, to rambling three-bedroom homes. A few have their original furnishings.

We stayed in Rest Cottage, built in 1900 to house temperance workers. The white shingled cottage was updated recently, and has a large child-friendly living area, chunky well-worn Arts and Crafts furniture, a more-than-adequate kitchen , and a comfortable screened porch.

Missions House Lodge was designed with classic Arts and Crafts architecture, has eight guest rooms, a great room with a wide stone fireplace, and a communal kitchen. Columbine Lodge has efficiency units that can be combined into suites.

Chautauqua's grand auditorium is a sturdy beamed structure that looks like a cross between a large barn and a Victorian folly. The classical Colorado Musical Festival holds its performances here, and a variety of music and dance concerts are offered from June through September. Silent films have been screened for nearly a century in the cool, high-ceilinged space. During the week we visited, we heard bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs, classical pianist José Feghali, cowgirl singer and storyteller Liz Masterson, and Peruvian singer Susana Baca.

Summer days at Chautauqua are warm and languid. Time moves more slowly, and there's a sense of being in another era.

And then there is Boulder. It is an outdoor enthusiast's paradise, with stellar weather nearly guaranteed 10 months a year. Thousands of acres of public parkland beckon, with numerous trails starting from Chautaqua's property. Rocky Mountain National Park , Indian Peaks Wilderness Area , and Eldorado Canyon State Park are all less than an hour away. The pedestrian mall along Pearl Street has shopping, buskers, and excellent restaurants. Bikeways criss-cross the city. Boulder Creek cuts through the center of town and is clean enough to swim and tube in.

Boulder's downtown has plenty to recommend it. Bicycles appear to outnumber cars, and it is possible to get anywhere with relative ease and safety on bike trails. We borrowed a trailer, packed our son into it, and rode all over town .

The twice-weekly farmer s market is heaven for organic foodies, with incredible produce and numerous lunch stands offering spring rolls, burgers, and smoothies.

The market is held in front of Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse , an architectural treasure and popular restaurant. The lavishly tiled, carved, and painted teahouse was a gift in 1990 from Boulder's sister city in Tajikistan; it's the only teahouse of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. The restaurant has an extensive tea list, and a curious variety of foods, from savory Middle Eastern specialties to fish tacos and Wiener schnitzel .

We spent two days in Rocky Mountain National Park. The first day we hiked from Bear Lake Trailhead to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald lakes, then up to Lake Haiyaha, with its still, clear water and glacier. On our second visit, we were auto tourists and drove the length of the park on Trail Ridge Road, a 48-mile-long engineering feat that is the highest continuously paved highway in the United States. It reaches an altitude of more than 12,000 feet, provides vistas across 14,000-foot peaks, and crosses the Continental Divide.

Just south of the park we spent an afternoon in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, hiking the Lost Lake Trail. We followed an old mining road, past abandoned log cabins and blocked mine shafts, to the lake, where our son splashed in the cold water .

One possible downside to Boulder is that all the locals appear to be more fit than the rest of us. So we tried to fit in. We hiked. We rock climbed. We biked. At times, it was hard to slow down.

But in the evenings at Chautauqua we did just that. We watched the sun set and the moon rise on a quiet, narrow street that hasn't changed much in 120 years. We came home one night to find a five-point buck munching early apples beside our cottage. Like generations before us at Chautauqua, every night we went home to Rest Cottage, to do just that.

Contact Beth Greenberg, a freelance writer in Boston , at

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